A recent study suggests that members of well-educated families suffer from food allergies at nearly twice the rate of others. The researchers, from McGill University, speculated that this may occur because rigorous hygiene standards have lowered their bodies’ natural defenses. The study also revealed that immigrants were about half as likely to be afflicted by food allergies. The study authors speculated that this could be due to differences in environment and diet between other countries and Canada.
The study, recently published in theJournal of Allergy,explored the question of why food allergy rates seem to be rising in industrialized countries. While the link between educational attainment and the development of allergies is not well understood, the researchers believe that the tie could be explained by the ‘hygiene hypothesis.’ Following this theory, smaller families with cleaner homes, higher standards of cleanliness, and a more frequent use of antibiotics and vaccines has stunted their immune system. Dr. Moshe Ben-Shoshan, who led the research team, explains that this could make such people more susceptible to allergies.
Dr. Ben-Shoshan noted that if this actually the case, parents may not be able to do much about their children’s heightened risk of food allergies. He noted that the benefits of hygiene and medicine easily outweigh the risks of children developing food sensitivities. He explained “If the price of having fewer allergies is more infection, I don’t know any parent who would expose their child to more infection.” While the findings of this study seem plausible to Dr. Stuart Carr, president of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, he also cautioned that it is difficult to translate the results into a preventive action that may halt rising allergy rates.
There are other potential causes for the apparent link between education and allergies. The study’s authors also suggest that more educated families may be more apt to follow older advice that suggests delaying potential allergenic foods, such as peanuts, to young children. Newer evidence, however, suggests that delayed introduction of allergens may actually make children more likely to be allergic, explains Dr. Ben-Shoshan. It is also possible that higher-educated families are simply more likely to seek a medical diagnosis for their children’s food allergies.